What Does the Study Tell Us? Seven Prominent Catholics Respond

Russell Shaw

If they gave a prize for most illuminating comment of the year by an American Catholic, a remark by a 25-year-old associate director of a Bronx senior center would have been a serious contender in 2006. After viewing the movie version of The Da Vinci Code, this canny young observer of religious affairs, a product of six years of religious education who goes to Mass twice a month, told the New York Times: “The Catholic Church has hidden a lot of things—proof about the actual life of Jesus, about who wrote the Bible. All these people—the famous Luke, Mark, and John—how did they know so much about Jesus’ life? If there was a Bible, who created it and how many times has it been changed?”

What makes these musings noteworthy is that here, at its abysmal worst, is the representative voice of a large and quite possibly growing school of thought in contemporary American Catholicism. Hearing it, you hear that discouraging mix of unselfconscious ignorance and complacent readiness to set aside the Christian Tradition at the drop of Dan Brown’s hat that seems endemic in some sectors of the Catholic community.

It’s relevant, too, to this magazine’s special report on American dioceses. Consider: Of the three criteria used in ranking sees, two (priestly morale and priestly vocations) concern clerics, while the third (“effective evangelization”) refers to newcomers to the Church. None reflects the situation of the great majority of Catholics—the longtime lay faithful. Casual readiness to disbelieve, as manifested by the moviegoer quoted above, is typical of an alienated, marginalized, and apparently large segment of this mass. But the laity doesn’t make it into the special report.

Pardon the outburst. I’m sure those responsible for the CRISIS study don’t really think lay people are beside the point. To a great extent, what’s missing from their analysis isn’t even their fault. One can only analyze information that’s available, and a lot of important information about the Catholic Church in America either isn’t available or, by design, is available to only a few.

The report notes, for instance, that although every diocese knows how many sex-abuse cases it’s handled, that in-formation hasn’t been shared with the Catholic people even at this late date. Many other facts—about diocesan and parish finances and much else—also are closely guarded secrets. The upshot is that there’s much Catholics don’t and can’t know about their Church. To that extent, the young man from the Bronx got it right.

Even as it stands, of course, the CRISIS report sheds helpful light on what makes a local church succeed or fail. The most important lesson may be the role played by size. Quite simply, the gigantism afflicting many American dioceses appears to be a major obstacle to pastoral success. More on that below.

Still, the study’s limitations are real. Although you’d hardly know it from this exercise in number-crunching, the Catholic Church in the United States is more than bishops, priests, and recent converts. The Da Vinci Code fan quoted above is also part of it, along with 70 million or so other lay people. Although many things about a diocese’s condition can be determined without reference to its lay faithful, in the end no comprehensive judgment is possible that leaves them out of account.

Suppose someone were to try to measure what’s not covered in this report—what would he look at? Research in a number of areas of Catholic life not discussed here is needed to determine whether there are significant variations from diocese to diocese and also among groups within particular dioceses. Knowing that, we might be able to do something about the problems. Here are a few thoughts on areas that should be examined that way.

Mass attendance and sacramental participation would be a central part of it. The rate of Sunday (or Sunday-plus-Saturday-evening) Mass attendance in the United States has declined sharply in the past 40 years. The numbers vary depending on how they’re collected, but in general it is fair to say that, nationwide, the rate of attendance is currently around 30 percent. On any given weekend, 70 percent of American Catholics don’t go to Mass. That’s good compared with some other places (Western Europe and Canada come to mind), but it’s pretty bad compared with four decades ago, when the percentages were reversed-70 percent at Sunday Mass, 30 percent doing something else. Are some dioceses doing significantly better or significantly worse than the norm?

At this point, incidentally, Catholic happy-talk used to require saying that there’s far more to being a good Catholic than going to church. Battling for social justice and peace, it usually was said, is vastly more important. But you don’t hear that bit of wisdom so often any more, since even among the happy-talkers it seems to have sunk in that something is seriously wrong when only three Catholics out of ten attend Mass each week—especially when it’s perfectly clear that the other seven aren’t skipping Mass in order to fight for peace and justice.

Mass attendance isn’t the only problem. The sacrament of reconciliation—”going to confession,” it used to be called—pretty well disappeared in many parishes years ago. Catholic marriage may now be headed the same way. In 1986 there were 348,300 Catholic marriages in the United States; in 1996 there were 294,144. The figure in the Catholic Directory for 2006 is an anemic 212,456. That’s a 20-year drop of nearly 136,000 couples.

How about matters of belief and practice? For years polls have showed that huge numbers of American Catholics reject key elements of Catholic faith and morality. A random sample in 2003, for instance, found 86 percent of the Catholics agreeing that “if you believe in God, it doesn’t really matter what religion you belong to.” As for morality, only 4 percent of Catholic married couples of childbearing age use a natural family planning method approved by the Church; the rest apparently couldn’t care less about Humanae Vitae and the theology of the body.

To be sure, the polls also routinely demonstrate that Catholics who attend Sunday Mass are much more likely to stand with the Church than Catholics who don’t. Unfortunately, whatever consolation that affords is dimmed by the fall in the rate of attendance—to say nothing of the fact that even many regular Mass-goers part company with the Church on some issues. Again, the obvious question all this raises is Are there dioceses where the situation is either much better or much worse?

Another factor to crank into the equation when rating dioceses concerns the explosion of the Hispanic population in the United States over the past 40 years. During this time, Catholics increased from 46.2 million to 69.1 million. That’s a rise of nearly 23 million—half again as many Catholics now as there were four decades ago. But the astonishing fact is that Hispanics accounted for between 70 percent and 90 percent of the increase (the estimates vary). Spanish- speakers in the United States now number about 42 million, and most are still Catholics. In the Catholic population as a whole, they make up 36 percent (some would say more), with the figure rising fast. Among younger Catholics, it’s already 44 percent. Hispanics are well on the way to becoming a majority in U.S. Catholicism.

Rating the performance of dioceses obviously must involve noting successes and failures in ministering to the Spanish-speaking, among whom losses to the Church are known to be disturbingly large. The challenge of ministry to this group can be seen in the fact that 93 percent of the Catholic priests in this country are white non-Hispanics, while only 3 percent are Hispanics.

Relevant questions about Hispanic ministry would include: How many of the Spanish-speaking get married in the Church? How many have their children baptized as Catholics and raise them as such? What is their Mass attendance rate? How many drift away from the Church into Pentecostalism or something else? Are there any diocesan success stories in raising the disappointingly low figures on Hispanic priestly and religious vocations? Is there a correlation between the answers to questions like these and diocesan size?

As the CRISIS study notes, many American dioceses are just too big to be pastorally effective units. While there probably are several explanations for the inverse relation-ship of effectiveness to size, one especially seems to stand out: If a bishop is crucial to the life of his diocese, as the study contends, it stands to reason that diocesan vitality will be impaired in a see of such geographical and numerical magnitude that the ordinary becomes an isolated figure in a remote chancery office, cut off from direct pastoral contact with his flock.

The figures assembled here illustrate the problem. Total Catholic population of the 20 highest-rated dioceses is 2,447,408 (figures as of January 1, 2006). That’s an average of a modest 122,370 per diocese, with the actual sizes ranging from Denver’s 384,611 down to Anchorage’s 32,170. By contrast, the 20 lowest-rated sees have a combined Catholic population of 11,615,715—an average of 580,786 faithful per diocese. The list includes giants like Boston (1,845,846 Catholics), Philadelphia (1,462,388), and Rockville Centre in New York (1,431,774).

Why are some dioceses so big? Demographics—immigration, birth rates, and population shifts—created them, but the familiar patterns of clerical careers operate to keep them as they are. These ecclesiastical baronies are prizes— burdensome ones, of course capping lives spent in upper-level service to the Church. Not only their incumbents but lower-ranking clerics with reasonable prospects of someday being rewarded in this manner have an incentive to support the status quo. The fact that regular, living contact with their people may be a near-impossibility for the bishops of such places seems not to matter so much.

That underlines something Pope Benedict XVI said recently. Speaking late last year to Swiss bishops making their ad limina visits, he called it “a fundamental task of pastoral care to teach people how to pray.” Many of our contemporaries, the pope maintained, “seek meditation elsewhere be-cause they think that they will not be able to find a spiritual dimension in Christianity. We must show them once again not only that this spiritual dimension exists but that it is the source of all things.” More than anything else, perhaps, neglecting the fundamental spiritual dimension of the Faith may explain the problematical situation of some American dioceses today.

How do you measure grace? If there’s ever another crisis study of dioceses, the researchers needn’t worry—you can’t. But it’s no great trick to measure the problems that sprout and multiply where the spiritual soil is thin. Note that these are problems for Catholic lay people, including those who admire The Da Vinci Code, at least as much as they are for their bishops and priests.

Deal W. Hudson

Bishops do not like to be scrutinized by the laity” was the reaction of a friend of mine to the news of this survey. He predicted that the bishops would be irritated, to say the least, at the presumption of a Catholic magazine, owned and operated by lay faithful, to publish ratings of Catholic dioceses. That is certainly not the spirit in which Mr. Wagner and Father Hunter-Hall have presented their findings, the first of which is an appreciation of those bishops who are “truly unsung heroes of the Church.”

I hope Church leaders will find these rankings interesting and helpful. For example, with apologies to Bishop Kurtz, I had no idea the Diocese of Knoxville was so vibrant, or the Diocese of Savannah, either. This survey is valuable only if it gives credit to some “unsung heroes” and expands our awareness of where the Church has grown stronger over the past decade.

The authors offer a statistical baseline for evaluating the strength of dioceses, without the imposition of an alien theological agenda. Who can argue with the importance of clergy growth, vocations, baptisms, and conversions? Yes, there are many other indicators, such as the number of students entering seminary, but that information is difficult to obtain from a diocese.

Numbers never tell the whole story: Renewal may well be underway in a diocese, the fruits of which are not yet seen in the statistics present here. The survey is, no doubt, simply a snapshot, but a valuable one. What we see in the various rankings is attributable to many factors, not just to bishops. Bishops can be appointed to places where the deterioration is so serious that it will take a lifetime to rebuild. And, as was pointed out to me by an insurance man, this particular snapshot may have caught a diocese in its growth years and is not necessarily predicative of the years to come. Can the dioceses of Knoxville or Savannah sustain their growth patterns, or does this survey come in at the end of an upward trend line—and vice versa for some of the dioceses lower in the ranking? That is why it is important for CRISIS to repeat this survey on a regular basis, perhaps adding other criteria made available through the cooperation of the 176 dioceses.

In terms of some of the success stories here, it comes as no surprise to me that the Archdiocese of Chicago is high on the list of vocations. In mid-2006 I wrote a story on vocations for my e-report, “The Window,” and reported that Chicago’s Web site for vocations was both welcoming and comprehensive. It’s also a tribute to Francis Cardinal George’s spiritual leadership that such growth is occurring in one of the “old” Catholic cities of the Midwest. As the survey suggests, it’s much harder to generate new growth and vitality in the places where Catholics first settled in the United States. This makes Cardinal George’s accomplishment in Chicago even more significant.

I’m particularly taken by the authors’ conclusion about the characteristics of bishops whose dioceses show growth: belief in the work of the Holy Spirit, joy, personal responsibility, and the engagement of the world through media like the Internet. Joy and a reliance on the Holy Spirit go together, of course. It has been my experience that when a bishop exudes these qualities, good things happen. When people meet bishops like this, they want to be more a part of their church, and they want to help their bishop. It’s just the common sense of leadership. Who wants to serve a spiritual leader who makes their burdens heavier?

Mr. Wagner and Father Hunter-Hall might have called this the “evangelical” dimension of a bishop—but Catholics seem to be afraid of that word. Such evangelical bishops, as the authors say so well, are “unwilling to acquiesce to decline.” The Catholic world in this country is divided in many ways, but one of those divides is between those who are confident in and committed to Church growth, and those who see it only in terms of the hand-off between successive generations of Catholics, hoping against hope that their children and grandchildren remain in the Church.

What this latter group needs to realize is that a vital, joyful Church is the best bet for successfully sharing the Faith with the next generation. There is much more to being a Catholic than grimly carrying out our spiritual obligations. The added dimension is precisely the joy that these shepherds are sharing with their sheep.

Perhaps the most provocative observation made in this survey is that the Catholic Church counts as Catholic anyone who claims to be Catholic, regardless of whether he or she ever darkens the door of a parish. The authors point out how different this way of counting adherents is from Protestants’, especially evangelicals.

What would happen if Catholic priests and bishops began to count only religiously active Catholics as adherents? The numbers, naturally, would plummet. Catholics in the United States might not be any larger in number than, say, Southern Baptists. What would be the criteria used to distinguish a Catholic from a non-Catholic in this measure? If the criterion is Mass attendance, would it be weekly, the obligatory requirement? Would regular confession be thrown in?

I am not, by inclination, a “numbers guy.” But I have realized over the years that numbers tell an important part of the story about the past and present. Numbers also provide an opportunity to set practical goals for the future. Certainly the one number that did not come under the purview of this survey, but is central to the strength of the Church, is the percentage of Catholics who attend Mass. Mr. Wagner and Father Hunter-Hall are right, I think, to intimate that the time has come to reconsider whether Catholics who never attend Mass can be counted as Catholic at all.

Most Reverend Joseph E. Kurtz, D.D.

Pope Benedict XVI, then—Cardinal Ratzinger, in a homily delivered in 1986 at the 400th celebration of Bamberg Seminary, spoke of “having the courage to be near the fire” and “proclaiming joy.” This twin call for courage and joy permeates the CRISIS report and, I believe, captures the spirit of the Diocese of Knoxville. Three factors, though difficult to determine their precise interrelation, clearly affect one another: unity of the bishop and priests, attraction of priestly vocations, and active participation of the faithful.

Central is the unity of the presbyterate with the bishop. Such unity, always seen more clearly by those coming from the outside, is nonetheless very evident to me. A good bishop needs to be both a brother and father to his priests. We have an atmosphere in Knoxville that encourages both. It is reciprocal: A bishop needs love, courage, and trust in God; priests need the good faith and fidelity to receive a bishop well. I have completed seven years here and can testify to the lively and vibrant faith. While we have grown greatly since our founding 18 years ago, there remains the small- town feel. I do believe that the report captures the key role of the bishop taking personal initiative. I must admit that such day-to-day direct contact with priests and seminarians is extraordinarily beneficial. This would not be possible if our size were ten or 20 times what we are.

What contributes is a cycle of well-attended gatherings to deepen the priestly commitment: an October three-day retreat, a January overnight, a June three-day convocation (shared with Nashville), bimonthly general meetings, small- group gatherings with the bishop, and a number of support groups. “Well-attended” does not mean perfectly attended, and so I always encourage even more participation; however, I will admit that we have a fine track record. Likewise, we are still of a size that allows firsthand contact between bishop and priests. I find it unique that we do not have a personnel committee but rather direct contact between bishop and priest in dealing with pastoral assignments.

Our response to the Lord’s call to priestly vocations takes center stage. It has been said of vocations that young people will give their lives for an exclamation point, but they will not give them for a question mark. Two factors here are the active relationship of the bishop and key priests with the seminarians and potential candidates, and the general positive attitude within the diocese. Our vocation director and vocation promoter are both pastors and extremely active in promoting vocations, as are many of our parish priests. A gathering at the end of the summer at a parish includes priests, chancery staff, seminarians, and their families, as well as candidates invited by priests. After Christmas, seminarians, priests, and candidates gather at my residence. I visit each seminarian and his seminary annually.

Sharing the stage with vocation promotion is a proactive evangelization that takes pride in our Catholic Faith. Active involvement of the faithful throughout the diocese has resulted in tremendous participation in diocesan activities: a full Chrism Mass annually and an overwhelming response to our recent Capital Stewardship Campaign, with more than 50 percent of families giving a pledge. I anticipate the same results from our evangelization outreach, Why Catholic?, offered by Renew International, which will begin this fall in our parishes and be the source of adult faith formation.

Thank you for highlighting the vibrancy of the Catholic Church in East Tennessee. While we Catholics remain a minority, the Catholic Faith is respected and grows in esteem and numbers each year. In union with our Holy Father, we pray for the grace to continue in a courageous and joyful path.

David R. Carlin

The study and the tables it produced remind me of a remark attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “This is the kind of thing you will like if you like this kind of thing.” It so happens that I am one of those who enjoy examining tables full of numbers, so I liked the study. But do these tables tell us anything about which bishops are good and which not so good? I’m afraid not. The study is a pleas-ant thing, but it proves nothing.

Take, for example, the number of converts to Catholicism. On the basis of mere common sense, one could have predicted before the study that these converts would be most common in regions of the country in which (a) the average level of religiosity is high; (b) the pool of potential converts (i.e., non-Catholics) is large,. (c) these non- Catholics are overwhelmingly Christian and not Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, atheistic, etc.; and (d) these non-Catholic Christians come from a religious tradition in which it is common for people to switch from one denomination to another. In short, one could have predicted that the highest rates of converts would come from the Protestant South. And for converse reasons, one could have predicted that the lowest rates of conversion would come from the Catholic Northeast—where the pool of non-Catholics is relatively small, a notable portion of this non-Catholic population is made up of non-Protestants (i.e., Jews and secularists), and the average level of religiosity is low.

One of the few merits of the study is that it corroborates the above hypothesis. Everything, it turns out, is pretty much explained by demography. Bishops, for all we can tell, have little or nothing to do with it.

Or take the question of the increase or decrease in the number of active diocesan priests. One of the reasons an older priest may keep working beyond the retirement age is that he has been inspired to do so by his bishop, but there are many other possible reasons. Perhaps he is a man of education and high culture who enjoys working with the well-educated men and women of his upscale parish; or perhaps he is a saintly man who is gratified to be able to work with the down-and-out people found in his impoverished inner-city parish; or perhaps he keeps working for a hundred other reasons. Likewise, if a priest is eager to retire, this may be for any of a hundred reasons having nothing to do with his bishop. And if it has to do with his bishop, this may be a bishop he had unhappy dealings with ten or 20 years ago, not his current bishop.

Finally, there is the issue of the number of diocesan ordinations. In most dioceses this number is typically so small that any slight increase or decrease in numbers will produce a tremendous percentage increase or decrease. It is like a small town in which murder almost never occurs; and then one year a triple homicide takes place, as a result of which the murder rate in this town skyrockets, a percentage increase far greater than the percentage increase in great murder centers like Houston, Miami, Baltimore, and Detroit.

If you want to do a comparative study, you must com-pare apples with apples. If, for example, you want to mea-sure the effectiveness of the death penalty in the United States, you would have to compare two states that are very similar to one another in almost every respect, except that State A has capital punishment and State B does not. More-over, it is doubtful that you can find two states, one with and one without the death penalty, that are sufficiently similar to one another to allow you to make an apples-to-apples comparison.

Likewise it is doubtful that you can find two dioceses that are sufficiently similar to one another for you to conclude that any differences you discover are due to the qualities of their respective bishops. And it is more than merely probable—it is absolutely certain—that the dissimilarities in the 176 Catholic dioceses in the United States are so great that it is impossible to conclude that the differential achievements of these dioceses must be the result of the goodness or badness of their bishops.

I don’t want to suggest that evaluating bishops is not worth doing. Far from it. The bishop is at the top of the organizational pyramid in any diocese, and, as President Truman once famously said, “The buck stops here.” One of the reasons we have a single person at the top of most of our organizational pyramids—whether in churches, governments, corporations, sports teams, etc.—is so that we will know where to place the blame when things go wrong. When somebody is appointed to the top post, an implicit warning goes with the appointment: “If things go wrong, we will blame you. Even if it is not your fault, we’ll blame you. Henceforth you will be the blame-taker-in-chief.” Think of all the baseball managers who have been fired because their team had a losing season, even when it was not the manager’s fault. The assignment of blame to the man at the top will often not be just. Nonetheless it is socially expedient, for it makes him try harder. Knowing that he will be blamed for anything and everything that goes wrong, he is more likely to do all he can to make sure that very little does go wrong. And this goes for bishops just as surely as it does for baseball managers.

It is regrettable, it seems to me, that there is no valid instrument that can be used by laypersons to evaluate Catholic bishops. It is regrettable for the laity and for the bishops, too, who could profit, as politicians do, from a certain amount of critical feedback from their constituents. The study at hand is a valiant—but, alas, unsuccessful—attempt to create such an instrument.

Mary Jo Anderson

The bishop does matter. More importantly, these bishops matter very specifically to the time and place of their calling. The 2001 Synod of Bishops in Rome inquired, “Therefore, into what kind of world are the Bishops sent forth to proclaim the Gospel?” As the article indicates, there is one constant for all American bishops: The “now dominant (and hostile) secular culture” erodes the shared Christian cultural markers that earlier bishops counted upon as part of the American heritage. The fastest-growing self-identified cultural group is adult atheists or agnostics. A significant number of them insist that Christianity infringes on their “rights.” Often the rights they claim are dehumanizing: cloning, same-sex unions, euthanasia, and abortion. No day passes without news of the conflict between faith and public policy. This is the kind of world an American bishop must confront—impossible when the health of his own diocese is on life-support.

In reverse order of the stated criteria for a healthy diocese, the task of U.S. bishops is in large measure to re-evangelize their flocks and inoculate them against the toxic culture. The American Religious Identification Survey of 2001 reported that only 59 percent of self-identified Catholics attend Mass regularly. Growth will come first from re-claiming our own who have left the Church. This internal evangelization begins with a sincere outreach to those who struggle with issues of abortion, divorce, homosexuality, etc. Evangelization means proper catechesis is urgent: Few understand why the Church defends life and natural marriage beyond a mere authoritative edict.

Equally as crucial for re-evangelization is care for the liturgy. How many have left the Church in disgust over clown Masses and other abuses? Liturgy is the language of the Church. When that language becomes unintelligible, when it has no clear message, when it is a personal platform for this or that priest’s “vision of the church that is being born,” it is no longer Christ’s message, but a banal, passing trend.

The bishop has the charism of governing. Strong governance in the matter of proper liturgical practice is imperative for the health of a diocese. Where reverent Masses, Eucharistic adoration, and devotions like the Stations of the Cross and the rosary are offered, grace is abundant and the vitality of the diocese increases. This is the grace Catholics desperately need; they gain strength against secular influences and wisdom that overflows into their families, neighborhoods, and work. The bishop’s flock becomes salt and light to the surrounding community. When Catholics are known for their joyful, confident hope in God, their lives evangelize those whom they encounter.

Bishops see the signs of the times: Despite abundant freedoms and prosperity, many Americans report suffering from depression, alienation, and confusion. People are searching for meaning that secularism cannot provide. Secularism is a tool for evangelization, for as the pressures of secular culture increase, more people will be open to the gospel message of hope.

This is especially true as family life comes under greater assault. The Church must be the bastion of healthy family life. The bishop who fosters authentic Catholic family life cannot fail to build a healthy diocese. Family-friendly programs and Catholic schools are a major contribution to a healthy diocese. Furthermore, it is within solid Catholic family life that vocations are born.

Vocations depend most significantly on the bishop as shepherd. My own diocese of Orlando serves as an example. The vocations program was lackluster when Bishop Thomas Wenski was installed as the ordinary two years ago. “Our bishop is the vocations director,” notes Rev. Miguel Gonzales, the director of vocations for the diocese. “He changed [the director of vocations] position to a full-time position, he has potential candidates to his home where he shares his own vocation story, and has held a synod for vocations. I have to say that vocations is a top priority for Bishop Wenski.” Three priests will be ordained this year, and two more are set to be ordained in 2008. Currently 18 men are in formation for the Diocese of Orlando. Where evangelization and vocations flourish, the morale of the presbyterate naturally follows.

As a southerner, I am intrigued by the finding that the Church is healthier in the anti-Catholic South than in the heavily Catholic Northeast. (My student years at St. Richard’s in Jackson, Mississippi, meant enduring the taunts of “mackerel snapper” in the wider neighborhood.) A Barna Group survey reports, ‘The South is not only the nation’s most populous region but also that which has traditionally been the bastion of evangelical Protestant faith.”

I am persuaded that the Church flourishes in the South today by the observation of Catholic southern writer Flannery O’Connor, who stated, “The notion of perfectibility of man came about at the time of the Enlightenment . . . This is what the South has traditionally opposed . . . The South, in other words, still believes that man has fallen and that he is perfectible by God’s grace, not by his own unaided efforts.” That is to say, the modern South inherits the truth about man: He is fallen and in need of God. It is no accident that as the secularized culture encroaches on public life, southern Evangelicals and others are suddenly welcoming the Catholic Church, the one unified voice against Enlightenment dehumanization.

Amy Welborn

The study summarized here in the pages of CRISIS is a valuable step forward in assessing the health of the Church in the United States, and one that is refreshingly free of polemic and presuppositions about what must define a “healthy” diocese. The study also makes an excellent attempt to factor out demographic shifts from the equation, which is important. I’ve lived and participated in Catholic life in the Northeast, many areas of the South, and the upper Midwest. Those who constantly mourn parish and school closings never seem to grasp that when an area loses a fourth of its population over a decade or two, parishes are going to close, as are schools.

I do have some nitpicks, however.

The ordination question is a crucial one, and this study begins to address it. However, one point is not examined as closely as it could be: the composition of ordination classes. How many ordinands actually hail from the diocese for which they are being ordained? In May 2006, a Chicago pastor wrote a forthright note in his parish bulletin about the ordinations in his archdiocese, noting that none of the ordinands was a native of Chicago, none had had his faith formed in a parish in the archdiocese, and all but one were born outside the United States.

As the study notes, the presence of non-native priests has sustained the Church in the United States and probably will continue to do so. They function as a marvelous witness to what catholicity really means. But there are questions raised by the declining proportion of priests native to their dioceses or even this country, and they are not questions that hint of xenophobia or prejudice. They are questions, as the Chicago pastor said, of “spiritual leukemia”—why is it that settled generations of American Catholics produce so few vocations to the religious life? Can one really assess the health of a diocese by ordinations if large numbers of the ordinands didn’t live in that diocese until they considered seminary?

Secondly, the “adherents” measure seems reasonable on the surface, but I wonder if it comes with qualifications as well. Many parishes and dioceses put returning Catholics through RCIA. In the RCIA programs in which I have been involved, invariably a third to one-half of the participants have been returning Catholics. One could argue that a per-son baptized Catholic and finally returning to practice is just as much the “fruit” of evangelization as a Methodist coming into full communion, but that is questionable.

In addition, marriage issues play a large role in bringing people to RCIA. Once again, we’re not saying that only the individual who has no Catholic background and shows up at the door drawn by the Faith, apart from any other personal or cultural factors, should be “counted”—that’s not the way life is. But because of those normal personal and social factors that work in many people’s decision to approach the Catholic Church for full communion, I’m not sure how reliable a picture of a diocese’s evangelization efforts the number of new believers actually is, ironically.

Finally, a comment on the general issue of diocesan health and regionalism. The study quite rightly pulls the statistics from the Northeast and asks, “What’s wrong here?” The answers offered by the study suggest accommodation- ism and a sense of success in which the Church is majority or near-majority in most areas. The elephant in the room that the study doesn’t mention is a tricky one: ethnicity, or, more specifically, the links between ethnic identity and Catholicism. This link is a classic double-edged sword, one of many we encounter historically in Catholicism. So often what appears to be our strength in one stage plants the seeds for future problems.

The historical strength of Catholicism in the Northeast has been intimately tied to ethnic groups with a Catholic identity: primarily French-Canadians, Irish, Italians, and Portuguese. What seems almost invariably to happen in these communities is that religion evolves into just one more aspect of ethnic identity, something of which members are proud and protective, but the meaning of which tends to diminish over time as Catholic identity becomes just that—identity—not faith.

This is a point to remember in terms of our past, and also—as we look to the impact that many of us hope the presence of Hispanic Catholics will have on the Church in the United States—in terms of our future, as well.

George Sim Johnston

The challenge for the new generation of bishops is what to do with diocesan middle management. There are dedicated, talented Catholics who work in CCD, RCIA, and Pre-Cana programs, but there are also legions of functionaries who somehow got on the payroll and want to turn the Church into yet another Protestant denomination. In many places, a person who wishes to become Catholic will discover that the local RCIA program does not teach Catholic doctrine, rather, it subjects the unfortunate catechumen to endless hours of non-directional group psychotherapy. You learn about the feelings of everyone in the room, but not much about the Real Presence. And it’s never easy to correct these aberrations. Recently, the bishop of a neighboring diocese, after biding his time, fired his entire catechetical office, and for his pains was treated like Torquemada in the pages of the New York Times.

Those pink slips are encouraging, however, and may be an early sign of spring. In certain dioceses there ought to be a blizzard of them. But the laity need not wait for this to happen. Indeed, it’s not healthy to get fixated on the internal workings of the chancery. We have our own jobs to do, and we don’t need permission from the local ordinary to do them. Especially in a large diocese, the health of the Church is going to depend on the initiative of the laity, regardless of the strengths and weaknesses of the bishop. I get impatient with conservative Catholics who complain about the deficiencies of episcopal leadership and use the sometimes glaring lassitude of the clergy as an excuse not to follow St. Paul’s injunction to be importunate in season and out of season. We need to purge the last vestiges of clericalism, which oddly linger on both the Catholic right and left. The Church is not simply an institution run by the clergy, it is an evangelical movement that should involve everyone.

The good news right now is the apostolate going on at the grass roots, much of it inspired by the teachings of John Paul II. In most places, there is a small but critical mass of young Catholics who have responded to the late pope’s marching orders. In addition, Pope Benedict XVI, in his brilliant writings, has provided these new evangelizers with a compelling story to tell—an up-to-date Christian humanism that ought to resonate with anyone who has ears to hear. Those dioceses where the bishop and his staff are eager to promote and harness these energies are the ones that are going to thrive in the coming decades.

The other good news is the increasing number of bishops who champion a vibrant orthodoxy. We are at a tipping point in this regard. Although there are still bishops whose core convictions are political rather than apostolic, they are a minority. The statements on contraception and homosexuality that recently issued from the U.S. bishops’ conference meeting in Baltimore would not have happened a decade ago.

The Church itself needs re-evangelizing, and it remains to be seen how all those minimalist Catholics will respond to the efforts of even the most fervent bishops to win them back. Most Catholics I know do not attend Mass on Sunday. They regard the sacraments mainly as social occasions and teach their children little about a faith that they themselves hardly practice. In 1943, two French priests published a small book asking whether France, the “eldest daughter” of the Church, had not reverted to being a mission territory. The archbishop of Paris read the book and it kept him up all night. Two generations later, one might ask the same question on this side of the Atlantic. There is little to be complacent about.


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